For Parents
Smart snacking

Smart snacking


Snacks done right can fuel your child’s brain, body and athletic performance. Are you making the right choices for your young athlete?

By Jill Castle

In a world where food is plenty, and there are plenty of rules about food, the question of what’s the best snack is always top of mind for parents. As well it should be—getting snacks wrong can be a problem for health, growth and athletic performance.

Look at the statistics—23 percent of calories eaten by U.S. kids come from snacks, and some of these are providing high amounts of sugar and saturated fat, according to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. When it comes to the young athlete, snacking healthfully isn’t a given.

One study showed that although young athletes have a better intake of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, they also eat excessive amounts of junk food and sweets. In other words, they err on the side of too much snacking, and on the wrong foods.

Snacking isn’t bad. In fact, snacks can be very useful for the young athlete if done right. Snacks help athletes get the variety of nutrients they need each day and help their brain and body be adequately fueled for training and competition. A dual benefit!

So, which snacks with benefits should athletes be eating?

Snacks made with real food: Sticking to mostly real food (food you can identify, from the ground up) covers all the high points: nutrient-rich food, satisfaction after eating, stocked with ingredients that encourage health and growth, and missing the additions that can cause problems: too much sugar, unhealthy fat, and additives like food dyes and flavors.

Examples: apples, nuts, edamame, carrots, oatmeal, milk

Snacks containing protein: Protein is a key nutrient for the development, growth and repair of muscles. It also does a good job of keeping the tummy satisfied after eating. You don’t have to load up on protein—most kids eat enough in their regular diet without making extra additions. But, if you want to reap the benefits of protein timing is key. Athletes should try to eat protein with snacks, and especially after lengthy exercise (longer than an hour) to help repair muscle tissue.

Examples: hard-boiled eggs, cheese stick or square, deli meat, beef or turkey jerky, Greek yogurt

Snacks containing fiber: Fiber also has the benefit of contributing to the sensation of fullness after eating. Translated: this means you feel fuller longer and avoid the trappings of overeating. Fiber also helps promote regular bathroom visits. Make sure you’re drinking plenty of fluids.

Examples: Triscuit crackers, a cup of black bean soup, baked sweet potato, Wheaties cereal, celery stick

Snacks containing complex carbohydrate: All athletes need a steady supply of carbohydrate throughout the day – it is the energy source upon which muscles rely. But it’s the complex ones athletes should focus on, rather than the simple or refined versions like sugar, desserts, candy and other sweets. Complex sources of carbohydrate food sources should appear at most meals and snacks.

Examples: cubed cantaloupe, sliced apple, pasta salad, whole grain bagel, pretzels, baked potato

Snacks containing vitamins and minerals: Vitamins and minerals help the body process food, so it’s important to make sure food choices contain a variety of these. If you’re eating mostly real food, it won’t be a problem getting vitamins and minerals in your diet. But, if your snacking focuses on candy, cookies, chips or fried foods, you could be cutting yourself short on these important nutrients.

Examples: vegetables, fruit, grains, dairy products, fats and lean meat

Snacks containing healthy fats: Healthy fats have many different health functions, but for the young athlete they help the brain function well, which is important for school and on the court. However, the diet of kids and athletes tends to be too high in the wrong kinds of fats—saturated fats and trans fats. This is partly due to eating shelf-stable packaged foods, fried foods, whole dairy foods or high fat meats (ie, skin on chicken). Stick with healthy fats—mono-unsaturated and poly-unsaturated fats such as olive oil, nuts and avocado—to get the most benefits for your body and brain.

It’s hard to go wrong when you focus on the nutrients your child’s body needs. Combine any of these snack benefits to create a healthy, nutritious and delicious snack that will fuel your child’s brain, body and athletic performance.

Jill Castle, MS, RDN is a childhood nutrition expert and co-author of Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School. She is the creator of Just The Right Byte, a childhood nutrition blog. She lives with her husband and four children in New Canaan, Conn. Contact her at

Nutrition Health

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